Sunday, July 20, 2014

Why I am not writing while I am writing


I know I'm quiet! I'm sorry! But I'm working on my thesis. My writing energy is going there. Is the writing going well? I don't know. It never seems to come out the way I think it will, and I've been fussing over chapters one and two for several weeks now.

This morning I am going to plunge into (a new version of) chapter three.

I am technically on summer break for the MFA, with everything starting up again on Aug. 15. The timing is a little weird--the June residency marked the beginning of the second semester, but as soon it was over we immediately went on break. Still, I've been using the time pretty well, I think, working away most days on what will become my Aug. 15, Sept. 15, Oct. 15, and Nov. 15 submissions.  I won't have them all in hand before Aug. 15, but I think I will have a good start.

When I was writing "News to Me," I started each writing session by first writing a blog post. There was a reason for that--I wanted the book to have the intimate tone of the blog, and so each morning I did a quick blog post because they were easy and pressure-free, and because it helped me slip into that tone. After the blog post, I turned to the manuscript. It seemed to work.

But this thesis has a different tone than the blog, and so that approach will not work. It's intimate (it's first-person), but it is a little more removed, a little more thoughtful, a little more contemplative. I hope. Maybe not!  I seem to not be an overly-contemplative person.

So few blog posts from me, but just think: In another 1.5 years you can read my thesis. I'm sure that will be worth waiting for.

Onward....

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Proprietary information


I think it would be right to say that I grew up in journalism, and that through journalism I learned most of what I know about writing. I learned the basics on the job, and then I had the great fortune over the years to learn nuances, tricks, deeper ways of reporting and writing, from dozens of journalistic stars, through workshops and conferences.

The Duluth paper, in the old days, was part of the Knight-Ridder chain, which owned some of the best newspapers in the country: the Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News. The Knight-Ridder Talent Bank program sent some of the best writers, reporters, photographers and page designers from the big papers to the smaller papers to teach what they knew. And so I learned a lot through visits from Detroit columnist and magazine writer Susan Ager, and from Philly editorial writer Rich Aregood.

Later, I attended week-long workshops at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and at API, the American Press Institute, and I attended conferences at the Neiman Foundation at Harvard and at Wesleyan University. I attended lectures and workshops with Mark Kramer, Malcolm Gladwell, Molly Ivins, Katherine Boo, Anne Fadiman, Adam Hochschild, Jacqui Banaszynski, Tracy Kidder, Thomas French, and many others.

Later, it was my turn to teach, sometimes flying solo, sometimes on panels with Mark Singer and Louise Kiernan and Alex Tizon and Isabel Wilkerson.

Through all of this, the mantra was: Teach. Share. Take what you learn and go back to your newsrooms and spread the word. I spoke at conferences even when I felt intimidated and unqualified, because I felt obligated to repay the debt, pass on what I had taken from so many others.

All of this was great fun; I shared everything. For a long time, I put out a newsletter for the Strib called "Above the Fold" in which I recounted what I had learned at Nieman or Poynter, or reran Susan Ager's tips on avoiding speed bumps (slow or confusing details in stories that might derail the reader), or interviewed some notable writer--Dan Barry or Gene Weingarten--about how they had come to write some particular story. The newsletter grew quite popular, and for a while it had a pretty big circulation far beyond the walls of the Strib; I was emailing it monthly to journalists all over the country.

Share and teach, share and teach.

And now I am in grad school and it occurred to me during this second residency that that is not the mantra here.

During my first residency, in January, I blithely recorded some of what I learned (not all--there was too much) on this blog. I was sharing and teaching, which is, of course, what I have been doing for years.

But this time, in June, two instructors mentioned almost casually that what they were telling us was proprietary information, not to be shared, and I almost smacked my forehead with the palm of my hand: Duh! Of course! This is different than a professional conference where we are trying to improve our profession by improving ourselves.  This is academe. What the professors stood in front of us and told us came from years of thinking, researching, writing--it is their work, synthesized.  And it is their work that we are all paying for access to.

I should have thought about this as I was writing out those enormous checks--I'm paying a lot of money for this information.  It is not right for me to then turn around and give it away.

This is why my blogs from the second residency didn't go into a lot of detail about what the poetry instructor had to say about how to read a poem, or what the fiction guy had to say about how to structure a short story.

It goes against my desire--I want to share and teach! But this time it's not my information to share.

A POSTSCRIPT: Two of the students who were in class with me think I heard this wrong, and that the instructors were joking when they said the information was their intellectual property. How odd! How odd that two of them would make the same joke (on different days, in different classes).  But I stand by my last sentence: It's not my information to share, and even if they don't mind my sharing, I'll err on  the side of caution and be circumspect.

You know what this means: More stories about getting lost on Queens Road West when I'm there again next January.



Monday, June 9, 2014

Home, and odds and ends

Back in my park.
And now it is Monday, and now I am home. Last night I dreamed about my thesis, about writing it, word by word, beginning to end. I can't say that it was brilliant because that was not the lingering impression I had when I awoke, but at least I had made good headway on it...in my dream.

Even though I am just back from the second residency, there is a two-month break before the second semester work begins, the work of the monthly manuscript exchange and critique. I know that I cannot coast through those two months but need to start writing, maybe even as soon as today.

With uncharacteristic forethought, I took today and tomorrow off work, so between laundry and unpacking and grocery shopping and dog-walking and, possibly, a nap, as well as the Elvis Costello concert tonight, maybe I can begin to make some headway.

A few more things to remember about the last day of the residency:

* The last class, reading fiction as a writer, was interesting. We had re-read "The Great Gatsby" and a number of pieces of flash fiction in advance, and the instructor talked quite a bit about Gatsby, not much at all about the flash fiction, but after walking us through various shapes of narrative (the traditional approach, with complication-rising action-climax-resolution, and also a couple of shapes he came up with himself), we took a look at three more flash fiction pieces and took them apart. He had a lot to tell us, and only 90 minutes in which to do so, and questions seemed to derail him a bit but people asked them anyway, and when class was over I felt like he had stuffed all of his doctoral research into our heads. But it was fun, if only to see if I could keep up.


* Despite the hours of seminars and workshops, as well as the extra sessions I attended--readings and seminars by graduating seniors--as well as the hours and hours I put into my critiques (literally, morning noon and night for each one), I still found a little time for socializing (not my strong suit). Other people had more time to be sociable, and I can't imagine how, but they must be faster or more efficient or possibly more insomniac than I. (More than one classmate confessed to getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning to work on critiques when they couldn't sleep.)  Still, I did go out to dinner a couple of times, and take a few chatty walks, and I did eat lunch with people a few times, and I did have one or two days when I got to sit in one of those wonderful lazy white wooden rocking chairs outside the library. And then there was the Friday night bonfire.



The Friday night bonfire is, apparently, a tradition of the summer residency, a last get-together before everyone begins scattering the next day. It started around 9:30 p.m., which is late for me, but there I was, chatting with friends, turning down multiple offers of beer and wine, making a s'more, hobnobbing with instructors, watching the sparks fly up into the night. The conversation was aimless and friendly, the night air was warm and humid, the Hershey bars along the edge of the fire ring had started to melt and pulling them apart was like pulling apart strips of vinyl, and much later, when I went inside, my hair, my clothes, my skin all smelled of wood smoke.

* Graduation was surprisingly moving. I attended just because I was still on campus Saturday night when the ceremony took place--most people had skipped out after their last class, but my flight didn't leave until Sunday morning, so I wandered over there and sat with a couple of my classmates in the back row, and when the recording of "Pomp and Circumstance" started up and the graduates began filing in, I immediately teared up.

Each class votes as to whether or not they wear the caps and gowns or street clothes, and the class on Saturday had opted for street clothes, but as they crossed the stage, one at a time, they each got a diploma and a hood, which one of the program directors slipped over their head and then hugged them tightly.

There was a party after graduation, of course, a reception in the same building where we had had our opening night reception, but I don't like parties and I only knew a couple of the graduates, so I skipped out and instead sat outside by the library fountain, where people passed by on their way to and from the party, and stopped, and chatted, and pretty soon a couple of people produced some wine, and we had our own spontaneous mini-party as the sun went down.

And while I was chatting with another student, she and I both saw a wild fluttering and flapping, and the largest hawk I have ever seen swooped down out of the branches of those 60-foot-high trees and dove right toward a squirrel in the grass. The panicky squirrel dodged and ran, and the hawk swooped back up and disappeared in the branches. A red-tailed hawk, almost certainly, and I swear it was twice as big as the red-tails around here.

I'm sorry it missed its prey, but it didn't grow that big missing very often, and somehow it felt symbolic, all of us writers trying so hard, missing the mark, trying again, sometimes getting it right, maybe more often than not. Or maybe that's just what I think after spending seven sleep-deprived intense days with a bunch of intense and sleep-deprived writers who see symbolism everywhere.  It was great, but I am glad to be home.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Saturday


Thursday into Friday is when things start winding down, and it's a little sad, even as we all begin longing to be home and asking each other: Are you leaving Saturday afternoon? Or waiting until Sunday?

Thursday is when we get the first e-mail from Melissa telling us how to check out when we leave and where to leave our key card (and warning us there's a $75 fee if we lose it). Then another e-mail on Friday, with cab-to-the-airport information. The bookstore--where I was going to buy Doug one of those nice aluminum travel mugs, maybe, or one of those plastic water glasses with the rigid plastic straws, and where for sure I was going to buy myself a nice pen, since one of my pens leaked all over my hands one day and two others died, and I am now down to one ballpoint that I stole from the Star Tribune Credit Union--the bookstore is now closed (for the summer? for the weekend?), the library is on reduced hours (and has shut down the AC), the coffee shop isn't open.

Today the library will be open only between noon and two, and I must go in then and print out my boarding pass for tomorrow morning. I still have to order a cab for 8 a.m.

The campus at night.

But even as people begin to scatter, or think of scattering, classes go on. Yesterday morning was our third of four "reading like a writer" classes, this one on stage and screen. We focused on two films--"Lone Star," and "A Few Good Men"--and a lot of what we talked about could translate (not directly, but in concept) to narrative prose. We focused on flashbacks--how does the filmmaker get into one, and then get out again? Our instructor noted that John Sayles does not interrupt a tense, dramatic scene for a quiet flashback, but does the opposite; in "Lone Star" some of the guys are talking in the restaurant, the tension is low, the camera pans to a basket of tortillas on the table, there's an almost imperceptible shift, the basket of tortillas reveals something important (a bribe), we're in the past, and the scene is extremely tense, with Kris Kristofferson strutting and threatening, on the verge, always, of violence. Relief comes when the scene moves back to the quiet present.

Because it was a film writing class, we got to watch snippets of the movies, and at the end of the 90 minutes he let us stay a little late and watch the courtroom scene in "A Few Good Men" where Tom Cruise grills Jack Nicholson on the witness stand. So we sat in rows in the dark, like in a movie theater, 20 or 30 people on a brilliant Friday morning, and as the tension grew and it looked as though Cruise was defeated, and Nicholson rises from the stand to march off, triumphant, I found myself leaning forward in my chair and I looked around me and just about everyone else had leaned forward too.

And then you see the shift, and suddenly Cruise is in control (Cruise control?) and Nicholson snaps and bellows, "You can't handle the truth!" and the instructor paused the movie at that instant and crowed, "There it is!" and yes, there it was, that great moment that we had all been holding our breath for.




In the evening I went out to dinner with two other nonfiction students and three fiction students, and then I rushed to finish my final critique, which will be delivered at 2 p.m. today, and then it was time for the bonfire. The bonfire, another sign that everything is coming to an end.

Today: One more morning walk. One more class: "The Great Gatsby," reading as writer (fiction). One more workshop, one more critique.

It feels like everything is winding down, but in truth everything is gearing up: This residency marks the beginning, not the end, of the second semester.  Soon enough, manuscripts, critiques, regular emails, work work work. But tomorrow: home.


Friday, June 6, 2014

Friday

Copying out sentences by Kincaid and Zarin for the Deep Well exericse.

The news from home is sad: One of the fox kits who live in the park, in the wooded area behind the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Fireplace, was found dying by the side of the road. A neighbor scooped him up and gently placed him in her car and drove him to the Wildlife Rehab center a few miles away, where they told her that he had probably been hit by a car and had massive internal injuries. Better to put him down there than to leave him to die in the street, poor little guy.

And now the Facebook page that a few weeks ago had been buzzing with owl news is now filled with anger at the people who speed through the park, through our neighborhood, without regard for living creatures.

Anyway, that's back home, and I am still here in Charlotte, where it is nearly 8 a.m. Yesterday was a busy day, but I could start all of my posts by saying that.

Two great morning seminars--Suzannah Lessard, taking us into the rhythm of a sentence, and Cathy Smith-Bowers taking us into the structure of a poem. Good exercises for the brain. Lessard spoke about two memoirs we had read--Jamaica Kincaid's "My Brother" (which, as one student noted, is really all about her mother) and Cynthia Zarin's "An Enlarged Heart," which focuses on the physical environment of her life (windows, couches, doorways, apartments, one blue bowl) and keeps the strum und drang in the background.

Lessard said that one difference between reading as a writer and reading as, say, a doctoral student is quantity: It is more important for writers to dig deeply into one piece than to read a canon, or one writer's body of work. Her suggestion is to pick one complex sentence--maybe from one of the Victorian writers, she says--read it, read it aloud, copy it out on a sheet of paper, and then write your own sentence, following the syntax exactly. This is part of what she calls the "deep well," going deep into language, getting the rhythm and the structure in our bones.

(We then did this, as an exercise, copying out one of Jamaica Kincaid's sentences, and it is not easy to do.)

She also talked about differences between memoir and personal essay. Memoir is intimate, she said, like a story you might tell one trusted friend while sitting in a quiet room, maybe a library. Personal essay is told to a small group, maybe out on the porch. Opinion, on the other hand, is shouted to a crowd.

Essays are not as intimate, memoir is "not appropriate for the porch." Essay is about the life we all share, rather than about what makes your life unique. Essays are about what Life is like, rather than what is unique about one's own life.

And ten minutes after this seminar was over, on to Cathy Smith-Bowers and poetry.

Just as with last year, I felt daunted by the poetry seminar. I don't read a lot of poetry. I am a literal-minded, black-and-white-thinking journalist. I don't have patience to look for obscure Classical references,  or ....

But I loved Cathy Smith-Bowers, and I loved that class.  I do not want to reveal all of her secrets here, since she teaches this stuff for a living (and she asked us not to). So you will just have to track her down and sign up for her course. But we walked through a Nick Flynn poem, "Bag of Mice," a poem that I will now never forget, and she showed us how to respond to it emotionally first, intellectually second (something she learned, she said, from Robert Bly), and then how to walk deeper and deeper into the poem, step by step, looking at shape and punctuation and language and individual words.

Will I do this in the future? Not with all poems, certainly, but with poems that strike me, absolutely.


So, a full day already, but it was only noon. I zipped across the bricked courtyard back to the dorm, finished writing my critique for the afternoon workshop, zipped back to the library, printed it out from the little memory stick, quick grab some lunch, and then I had a half-hour to sit in a rocking chair and chat with one of the women from my first semester group. It was great to catch up, and she told me that one of her essays will be published in a local anthology and if she can get out of town and on the road Saturday night she might make it back in time for the book launch.



And then on to workshop, and my one-on-one with my instructor for second semester, which stretched from the hour it was supposed to be to ninety minutes, and after that a long walk with Shuly, where I saw the biggest red-tailed hawk I've ever seen in the top of a tree, and where we almost got lost but by putting our heads together did not get lost, and found our way back to campus.

And now it is almost 8:30 and if I am going to walk before our morning seminar I have to stop talking to you and get out the door. On the spectrum of intimacy, using memoir and personal essay as a guide, where do you suppose blogging fits?




Thursday, June 5, 2014

Thursday

A random lovely building on campus

I'm losing track of time. It is now Thursday, and I have a manuscript to critique for this afternoon's workshop--one that is so good all I can do is make stars and checkmarks and write "wow" and (let's see what else I have written as marginalia) "wonderful detail" and "so strong" and "lovely pacing"--and our first seminar is at 9. So you get a hasty report from jam-packed Wednesday.

After getting lost on Queens Road West, etc., I went to Emily Fox-Gordon's seminar on writing the personal essay. We discussed pieces by George Orwell and Philip Lopate (and used his anthology as text) and Cheryl Strayed and a wonderful, wonderful essay by a guy named Bert O. States called "My Slight Stoop" that you should all read.

Personal essays, Emily said, "the genre I love best," are the most intimate literary form there is--more intimate than memoir, though of course they are cousins. Authorial voice is crucial; the writer must establish trust and reliability with the reader, and only then can begin to push against it (which is often where the tension comes from).

The most intimate moments are often moments of high contrast, when the emotional stands out against the intellectual. Personal essays can contain deeply disturbing personal stories of anguish and pain but the author must work hard to avoid becoming maudlin or allowing the work to become a sob story (an ironic distance is crucial). Writers must both show and tell. (An echo of what Natalie Kusz had talked about on Tuesday--the telling is where the heart of the essay, the meaning, lives.) (The telling is where I fall down on the job. Reporters aren't supposed to interpret, but to let the facts speak for themselves. I am not sure I will ever learn this.)

We used a Cheryl Strayed essay, the one that eventually became her book, "Wild," to discuss the difference between confessing and confiding (we all agreed the essay was more confessional than confiding), and Fox-Gordon read a little to us from her own work-in-progress, an essay on that subject.

(Essentially: a confidence is between equals, a confession is generally to someone in authority. A small distinction perhaps but an important one.)

We did an exercise: write a scene as a confession, and write the same scene as a confidence. It was a terrific exercise, and for each one of us the confiding scene was more detailed and subtle than the confessional scene. One guy in the group shocked and horrified us all by confessing that as a child he had thrown a ball out into the street knowing a car was coming and knowing that the neighbor dog would chase the ball... (Later he told us that the dog did not die. But still. Demon child!)

More to say---in the afternoon we were in workshop for three hours, during which I was one of three on the hotseat; Suzannah Lessard took over our workshop as we now move to the small group (she is the instructor I will work with through the semester) and after we talked about my piece she launched into a discussion of structure that I do not have time to capture here for you now.

But she told a funny story about when she was a staff writer at the New Yorker, and how editors there (the most brilliant, legendary editors, she said, and I wanted to know more) would take on a lot of the structural editing and so the writers never had to learn it. When she wrote her first book, she was not entirely sure what she was doing and was trying to figure out its shape, so she pasted big sheets of butcher paper onto the walls of her office, where she tried to diagram the book. Her diagrams were mostly concentric circles, with the word "ME" in the middle of the middle circle because the planned book was a memoir.

And Bob Gottlieb, then the New Yorker editor, came into her office and looked at all the busy circles and said, "Suzannah. Books are linear."

I think I am going to love working with her.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Interlude: Getting lost

Not the biggest nor grandest by far,
but this one is for sale so I figured it would not be
intrusive to take its picture.
No time for a morning walk tomorrow; for the next two days the schedule goes from leisurely (10:15 a.m. seminar) to intense (9 a.m. seminar, followed by 10:30 a.m. seminar). Every morning, I've been walking in the lovely and civilized neighborhood around the campus--civilized, that is, if you think that three-storey stone houses with circular driveways and three chimneys and five gables and garages bigger than most ordinary homes are civilized. I kind of don't. But they are lovely. In this neighborhood, the streets wind in and out, crisscrossing, disappearing, reappearing, and it is only if you know the area--that is, live here--that you can walk without getting lost. This must be by design. I get lost every morning, and the walk that I intend to be 30 or 35 minutes is always 60 or 65 because I get turned around, and Queens Road West disappears, and there is nobody to ask except for gaunt, determinedly fit hardbody blond women jogging past, wearing earbuds, sometimes pushing lightweight strollers or dragging dogs behind them.

I did not dare explore what Whitehall is--not because of the "private" sign,
but because I figured I would only get even more lost.
I had gotten lost on Queens Road West many times already, and so today I found its other end and decided quite cleverly to trace it back to its origin, thereby following its twists and turns and never getting lost again. Brilliant! Up Queens Road to the Harris Teeter Grocery, turn left, down Queens Road (yes it jogs to the left without telling anyone, that crafty street), left again on Queens Road West, head back toward campus. Smooth sailing. I even stopped an old codger on his morning walk and asked if the road I was on would intersect with Radcliffe Road (which would bring me back to the university). Absolutely, he said. In four blocks. He raised his right hand, showing four fingers. "Four blocks," he said again.

I texted my dorm-mate: "I have cracked the code of Queens Road West!" And then, three blocks later, one block short of my goal, Queens Road West disappeared. Suddenly, I was walking on something called East. I turned back. The cross street was Kings. I was lost. I could see Queens Road West in the distance, headed back the way I had come, but it no longer went forward; I saw no way of getting to Radcliffe Road. And I was so close! One block, one stupid block!

In desperation, I stopped a hardbody blonde, and after she took out her earbuds and looked surprised at the interruption, she gave me directions. Go up Sherwood, she said, and it will intersect with Queens Road. Turn left, and you'll get to campus. "It's a long uphill," she said, a little apologetically, and I assured her that was fine.

This did not answer the mystery of where Queens Road West had disappeared to, but by now the weather was growing steamy and muggy, I'd already been walking for an hour, and it was time to get ready for class. I started up Sherwood. As I walked, I idly watched gardeners edging brilliant green velvet lawns, and made sympathetic noises at a housewife who was minutes too late hauling out her garbage can.

I watched a hardbody blonde jogging toward me, and it wasn't until she got close to me that I realized it was the same hardbody blonde who had given me directions. She stopped in front of me, jogging from foot to foot as runners do when they don't want to cool off. "I gave you the wrong directions," she said. "Turn right at the top of the hill, not left." I thanked her, thanked her for coming back, apologized that now she had to run up the long hill of Sherwood Avenue a second time. "I didn't want you to get lost again," she said, and turned around and jogged away.


Back on campus, at the clock tower.

Now I must rethink my view of hardbody blondes. That was so nice of her. And sure enough, Sherwood Avenue took me back to Queens Road, and I turned right, and in one block I was back on campus. I am here for three more days. I swear to God that I am going to walk Queens Road West one more time, and find that missing link.

Wednesday

My dorm looks way better on the outside than on the inside.

It's Wednesday now, I mean, Wednesday morning, 7 a.m. in North Carolina with clearing skies and rapidly rising temperatures. But this post will be about yesterday, Tuesday, Day Two, a busy day, a good day, a day when my ear felt better but my knee suddenly went to hell. And no, I am not the oldest person in this program. Not even the most decrepit. Just the only one telling the world her ailments through a blog.

But of course ear and knee are beside the point.

The morning two-hour seminar was taught by Natalie Kusz, a memoirist who is funny, smart, forthright, clear, entertaining, and useful. When speaking, I mean. I have not yet read her book, "Road Song," but now of course I will. I loved her. She is heavyset (she says fat) and has one eye (she was mauled by sled dogs in Alaska and lost the other one when she was five years old) and she is not shy about her opinions. (She told us that she hates Mary Karr and wishes she would die--Kidding! Kidding! Said only for emphasis!--for making things up in "The Liar's Club.")

For her seminar, we had read more Joan Didion (this time "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"), Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" (which I loved but I cannot find anyone else who did) and Thomas Lynch's "The Undertaking."

Natalie talked about what it is that makes memoir and creative nonfiction distinct: it is, she said, the meaning. She did not use the word "meaning," I don't think, but this is what she meant--the conclusions that the writer draws about the events that she is writing about, the writer's interpretations about what happened. "There are things that are invisible until you look at them," she said. "What can I know by looking at this thing? What do I discover or realize by looking at this?"

It made me think about my own essays, where I write the narrative and then, in early drafts, add in big capital letters, ADD WISDOM HERE.  That is, creative nonfiction begins from narrative nonfiction but then requires more--something that transcends the facts and brings - oh, what would be the right word, enlightenment or epiphany or conclusions or wisdom.

In "The Undertaking," she said, "Lynch tells us what events are like, but also what they are about."

She dismissed pretty quickly the idea that in creative nonfiction we are allowed to make up facts. "We're not making up facts, but we are making up the only important thing: What do I know because of what happened? And then make the leap to what can we all know?"

It seemed perfectly clear to me, but using the words "we are making up..." is dangerous.

Last night, one of my pals here told me that after class she was talking to another nonfiction writer who said, "Now I know how to end my memoir!" and she showed what she had written in her notebook: "Make it up."  Clearly not Natalie's message at all. Clearly the opposite of Natalie's message.

The rest of the day was a busy blur. I had critiques to finish and print out before the workshops, which began an hour earlier than the day before because they ran for an hour longer. Three hours of critiquing is intense, even with water and bathroom breaks, and even the instructor (Emily Fox-Gordon) was fatigued by the end.

The manuscripts in my group are at a pretty high level, and they are fun to discuss--instead of talking about very basic things, we jump around and discuss structure, and tone, and meaning, rather than the mechanics of writing. Today three more hours, three more critiques, but one of them will be mine. I brought for this group, the large group, a reworking of a piece I submitted in January at the residency. Students then had problems with chronology, so I started it in an entirely different place and moved forward without flashbacks (digressions are my specialty but the way I do them they are apparently confusing) but I'm not sure I like it as well. We shall see.

And after that, I took another walk (and OW my knee, what happened?) and then locked myself in my dorm room for more reading and critiquing. Other students are going out for dinner and meeting for drinks and going to the evening readings, and one of them texted me at 10:30 pm., urging me to come out and talk and drink, but man oh man am I just slow? I can't figure out how to fit in all that socializing. And at 10:30 pm., you better believe that I was in my pajamas, in the dark, in bed, on the verge of sleep.



Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tuesday

The fountain by the library, where we gathered before dinner.

Sleep helps. Last night, after dinner--a dinner out with two other students, an early dinner of North Carolina barbecue and roasted asparagus--I sat down to critique the three essays that we will be discussing in workshop this afternoon. And I realized that waiting until 8 p.m. with a full belly is not the best time for concentrating.  I read them, made notes, realized I had almost nothing to say.

Collaring my dorm-mate, Shuly, and telling her this was helpful, because as I spoke I said quite a bit about the pieces (this is my way--talk until I have something to say).  And then I went to bed, and slept soundly for ten hours.

Now it is Tuesday morning, and I have just finished writing my critique of the third essay. It occurred to me that these are high-level pieces, and one reason I thought I had little to say is that they are so skillfully written--I had to dig into them and find why they are good, what works, and so as I did that I was able to see what also detracted from their power and might be adjusted.

Now it's 8:30 and I would like to take a walk, as I did yesterday morning, though yesterday when I walked I got lost, as I always do, especially in this neighborhood. The main road, Queens Road, I think it's called, is a busy four-lane with a grocery store and apartment buildings and a sweet little library and cars whizzing by, but the avenues just off of Queens are quiet winding roads with mansions of impressive size, and long green lawns, and magnolia trees, just finished blooming, sixty feet high. (I think of the magnolia tree in my front yard in St. Paul, mostly dead, which produces six or seven blossoms a year, one at a time.)



So I wandered these lovely streets yesterday morning, trying diligently to retrace my steps when it was time to go back to campus, but found myself striding resolutely in entirely the wrong direction. I had to collar a stranger for directions and when he pointed in the direction of campus I at first didn't believe him.

So I missed morning coffee with my pals and instead made it to the first seminar in the nick of time.

There, we discussed critical writing vs. critiquing--the differences, the importance, the purpose. It was one of those lectures where I felt that I already knew and understood most of the points that were made, but I had never really articulated them before, which is really helpful. (Critical writing is an opinion bolstered by why; a critique is utilitarian, aimed at improvement.)

It was a cool, lovely day, and the air conditioning was on high in the lecture room, and I was freezing; the woman in front of me slipped out of the hall and returned with a jacket. After class I went back to the dorm and put on a long-sleeved shirt and a sweatshirt. In North Carolina. In June.

This bright green lizard kept swelling out his throat into a bright-orange bubble.
In spring, a lizard's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of ..... female lizards?

In the afternoon, two hours of workshop, two essays that had so much to admire. Because we are still in the "large workshop"--which consists of two small groups working together, with two instructors--we got a taste of both Emily Fox-Gordon's style, and that of Suzannah Lessard. I will be working with Lessard through the semester, but I like them both very much. The workshops were conducted in a much looser manner than those in January. In January, we were formal. The writer of the piece to be critiqued was not allowed to speak. Each of us went around the table and read our written critique, and then the instructor spoke, and only then was the writer allowed to say anything.

Yesterday was not like that. Everyone spoke. The instructors jumped in when so moved; so did the writer, to clarify questions that were raised. There are benefits in both styles, but I found yesterday's to be more challenging because instead of reading from a prepared and thoughtful statement, I had to think on my feet, which is probably not my strong suit. I think best with my hands.

And after that, though I had planned to return immediately to my dorm room and begin critiquing today's work, instead I went to dinner, which I do not regret (I have leftover barbecue in my little fridge), but which I did regret at 8 last night when I found myself tired and brain-dead.

But now it is 8:30 and I have finished my three critiques and the first seminar is at 10, and I think I have time for a walk, assuming I do not get lost.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Dorm room coffee



Years ago, when I lived in Duluth, I used to go up the Shore to the Scenic Cafe with my friends Sporty and Linda for Sunday brunch. This place, which looked out on Lake Superior, was "just like a restaurant in the Cities," we said, and was my introduction to French press coffee. Linda always claimed dibs on pressing the coffee grounds; I had never seen a French press before and it seemed exotic and sophisticated and I secretly wanted to press the coffee, just once, but she took so much joy in it that Sporty and I always let her. And now here I am sitting in a chilly dorm room with grungy carpeting and particleboard furniture and stained white walls and a noisy little microwave oven, and I am drinking French press coffee, and now it merely seems practical. (And good.)

It's so bleak!
The little glass French press is something I won in a Facebook contest sponsored by Bewley's of Ireland; I can't remember what I did to win, but I won, and I thought, they're not going to ship a French press all the way from Dublin to Minnesota, but they did, and so yesterday I wrapped it in bubble wrap and stuffed it in my backpack along with my computer and a few other items, and hauled it across the country to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I am at my second residency for my MFA in creative nonfiction, and I am very glad to have it. The french press, I mean.

Everything begins today. After today I will have more to tell you. Right now I can tell you that it was hot and steamy when I arrived and had to haul my backpack and my suitcase across the small, pretty campus to the Levine Center, where I got my dorm information, and then haul everything back across campus to the dorm, the wheels of my suitcase crunching and bouncing on the paths, and that I kept running into people I had met during the first semester (faces I remember, names not always), and my dorm-mate, Shuly, had brought me a pillow, as promised, which was so kind.

The campus in January had been green enough--grass, and some bushes, if not trees--but now it is lush, lush, lush. I made two trips to the nearby grocery store to stock up on breakfast food and toilet paper, and then it was on to the opening reception. The humidity dropped and the late afternoon was so gorgeous I didn't want to go back inside, but I had no choice--the reception is where we do the all-important manuscript exchange.

Just as in January, there were lovely little bites to eat--tiny chicken burgers and crudites and sushi and mini desserts, and free beer and wine, and just as in January I realized that I do not have enough hands, trying to hold my beer and and plate and manuscripts and, at the same time, eat. My other big concern is my ears, which have still not cleared up from my illness of late March. I had worried that being on the plane might be painful, but instead, as we descended into the Charlotte airport, they both opened up, entirely, gloriously, I could hear crystal-clear and fully, and I was thrilled, and then as we continued to descend they both closed up again, and while at the reception, in a noisy people-filled room, I could hardly hear a thing. I nodded and smiled and tried to eat my little burger and every so often went outside for relief.

After the reception was a faculty reading, and I should have gone, but I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to hear anything at all, so instead Shuly and I took a walk along the winding and mansion-lined streets around the campus. (And, as usual, got lost.)

And then I came back and critiqued two manuscripts for this afternoon. Everything starts in two hours, our first seminar, the annual all-program required seminar, so the room should be full.

It is nice to be here. I am homesick already, and I miss the dogs but I remember how invigorating I found the seminars last semester, and I am eager to begin.

But now it is 7:45 and I am going to take a walk before the heat of the day. I have not taken any other pictures yet so all you get is the dorm room.  More to follow.



Friday, May 9, 2014

Eulogy for an owlet

The female, the day I saw the owlet.
On the first Sunday in May, a great-horned owlet fell from its nest in Como Park. The chick was only a few weeks old — so young that it had no feathers yet, but was still covered in fluffy white down It weighed less than a pound.

It was, of course, a bird, and so it had no idea that an entire neighborhood had been awaiting its arrival. It had no idea that when it fell, it broke a lot of hearts.

Every night this long cold winter, I walked past the owl tree, a silver maple near the park Conservatory. A pair of great-horned owls had nested there the year before in a cavity created by a broken branch, and I hoped they would nest there again. They had produced two chicks, and all spring and summer I had watched the owlets grow.

But owls do not always reuse old nests, and so I kept watch in December and January as the pair hooted and flew, staking out their territory, getting ready to mate.

I thought of this as a solitary pursuit, but as it turned out, I was not the only one paying attention. Once in a while, as I approached the silver maple, I spotted someone else listening quietly in the dark.

I had lived in Como for 20 years, and I thought I knew most of my neighbors, but now I met many more. We stopped on the path and exchanged owl reports. We tagged each other in Facebook photos of birds. We e-mailed when we had owl news.

Great-horneds are early nesters, and the female is usually sitting on eggs by early February, but all that month, the nest remained empty. Were the owls nesting somewhere else? Had they moved on? Still, nearly every night, I heard hooting, and I had hope.

Ear tufts and yellow eyes.

On March 14, I looked up and saw ear tufts and yellow eyes. At last, the female was brooding. After that I saw her every day; she never moved. I took picture after picture of those ear tufts, as did my neighbors, who began joking that it was not a real owl in the tree, but only a cardboard cutout.

As we slogged through a cold, wet March and into a cold, wet April, the female remained steadfast. Every morning, ear tufts, yellow eyes. The male was usually nearby: It was his job to bring her food — squirrels, rabbits, rats, dropped into the cavity at her side. Her job was to sit still and keep those eggs warm.

We grew impatient. Finally, in mid-April, a neighbor posted a picture of her upside down in the nest. We cheered: She’s  feeding babies!

On the first Saturday in May, I was rewarded with a glimpse. The male owl, corpulent and sleepy-eyed, was in the branches of a nearby pine. The female was out of the nest, sitting on a branch in the silver maple, head swiveling, alert. For a long time, I watched the cavity. And then —peekaboo! — a puff of white, so fast I almost didn’t see it. It rose above the rim and then sank down. A minute later, another peek.

The little powderpuff.

The owlet was tiny and fluffy, a powder puff, only its eyes and beak visible as it rose and rapidly descended. Clearly, I thought, this baby wants to see the world, and the world — the neighborhood, anyway — wants to see it, too.

After a while, the jumping stopped. The female swooped off to a stand of pines. I walked on. And that was it. The next day, the owlet fell to its death.

A neighbor was biking past when he saw the owlet on the ground. The Raptor Center came and took the bird in hopes of saving its life, and the neighbor went home and alerted us via Facebook. Dozens of comments popped up, all distraught.

When I called the Raptor Center in the morning, they told me the owlet had died. It had severe bruising on its legs and abdomen, which was unusual. Owlets often fall from the nest or branch, and their soft down normally serves as excellent padding. But perhaps this owlet had gotten bumped as it fell, or perhaps it had been grabbed by a predator.

After it died, there was no reason for the parents to stay. The female disappeared almost immediately. The male stayed for a few days, but soon he, too was gone

The male, the day before he disappeared.

The nest was empty. There were no other owlets inside.

Is it strange to mourn a bird — a baby bird that you have only glimpsed once? But mourn it we did, and as we grieved, we tried to make sense of our attachment and our loss.

Those hooting owls had made the winter magical. I thrilled to see them near the silver maple, or hunting off the Conservatory’s illuminated dome. I enjoyed swapping stories about them and getting to know my neighbors better.

I am sorry that we won’t get to watch the owlet grow, sorry that the mother’s patient brooding was for naught. Nature has cycles, but that does not mean that nature is predictable. Wild babies — birds, raptors, turtles, kits — often die. I had counted on this owlet, and I should not have.

It is hard to live so close to nature and not feel the hope of its rhythms. Come November, I will be out there, walking the paths, listening for hoots, foolishly confident of babies in the spring.

I tell myself that the important thing is not that the owlet died, but that the owlet, however briefly, lived.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

In a holding pattern

Mrs. Owl on Thursday.
It is April 5, and I am waiting for owlets. Waiting for snowmelt. Waiting for my ear infection to clear up. Waiting for so many things.

I hate this holding pattern--shouldn't we be living every moment, not sitting around hoping for other, different moments? But I have been sick for two weeks now, with a bad cold that turned into sinus infections and then an ear infection, and let me tell you, there are few things more painful than an ear infection. It is hard to embrace every moment when most moments it feels like someone is jabbing you in the eardrum with an ice pick.

And two weeks is a long time to be moping around, not feeling good. I sleep at odd hours, feel vaguely sick all the time, probably because of all the cold medicine/ibuprofin/antibiotics/phlegm. I am feverish, off and on. I am annoyed with myself for being so sick for so damn long.

Still, every day, twice a day, I walk the dogs. Being outside makes me feel better, even as it wears me out. And along our usual route I always look up to make sure Mrs. Owl is still in her spot, and she always is.  I'm getting concerned, though--I see no movement. Oh, she moves--she turns her head, she hunkers down deeper in the tree cavity, or she sits up higher and looks out. She opens or closes her eyes. She is not a cardboard cutout. She is real.

But I see no other activity--I don't see her looking down at owlets, or owlets clamoring to peer out the hole, or Mrs. Owl tearing off bits of rabbit to feed the babies. She just sits there in the same spot every day, ear tufts glowing in the morning sun, waiting.

We had a big snowstorm yesterday; I was home from work because of this stupid illness and I lay in bed and watched the snow fall fast past the window; we got about a foot, when all was said and done, but by mid-afternoon when I drove to Walgreens to pick up my antibiotics it had already started to melt. This week will finally be spring, apparently; today it was 45, tomorrow it will be nearly 60, by Wednesday maybe 70.  My ear infection will clear up, eventually. The owlets will emerge, or won't.

I should not be waiting for good things to happen. I should be living in the now, embracing--what? My cold? My cough? My fitful sleepless nights?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Three lovely things


It's very true that I was cranky yesterday, for most of the day. What can I say? I was cold. I have been cold all month. At the time of yesterday morning's walk the temperature wasn't even yet 10 degrees, and we kept it short in hopes of a longer walk later in the day, when it was warmer. It didn't get warmer, though; it got colder. The temperature rose a few degrees, but the wind kicked up brutal and biting, and when I headed out in mid-afternoon it felt like it was trying to rip my face off. Yes, my face. I took it personally. I got mad. I froze. I went home, where I flounced and sulked and whined the rest of the day.

This has been such a cold spring, colder even than last year's--and last year's was notable for five snowstorms in April and one in May. This spring has not been as snowy, but it has been much colder. Twenty degrees below normal, steadily, for all of March. A person can waste a lot of time whining.

And so this morning when we headed out with the dogs, I vowed I would change my attitude; I would find three lovely things amongst all of the crustiness and frozen slush and icy sidewalks and filthy snow and bitter wind.

I realize this sounds so Pollyannaish of me--obnoxious and sanctimonious and preachy; ("There's always something to be glad about!")--but I didn't decide this in order to endear myself to others. I decided it in order to whip myself into shape. I had already wasted one day of the weekend by pouting; I was not about to waste the other.

So off we went, bundled up in down and longjohns and wool, with the dogs, and I found three lovely things right away. They were  all togther, in one bird.


The bright red, the blue blue sky, and the gorgeous song. Oh, my, he was singing!

So every lovely thing after that was gravy.

Here's what we saw:


The owl, still on her nest. (That one is practically cheating; she's not going anywhere for some time.)



An active fox den, with hopes of seeing kits in another month or so. (The den itself is not particularly lovely, though it is fascinating; it is more anticipatory loveliness, hoping for babies.)



And, back home in the frozen and slick yard, a very intense little dog chasing her Frisbee.



(Such audacious ears!)

Next weekend, they tell us, the highs will be above freezing. First they said 55, but I knew better than to count on that and now they are saying 45. (Though I just looked again and it says 35, with snow.) but still. Thirty-five with snow is better than 11 with strong wind.

You might be wondering about the turkey picture---I took that with my cell phone (which I always want to call my telephone) last week on the way home from work, when I saw a whole gang of turkeys marching down River Road behind the U.  It is not a lovely thing I saw today, but it is a lovely thing that I saw, and a reminder that if I quit sulking, dress warm, and go outside, I am certain to see something that will make me happy. (There's always something to be glad about.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

At the owl tree

On Friday morning I walked past the owl tree and glanced up at the nest cavity, as I always do, winter, summer, nesting season and beyond, and this is what I saw:


Can't see anything? Allow me to zoom in (which I did later in the day with a better camera):



Mom is on the nest!  Inside there are definitely eggs, or, more likely, given that it is already mid-March, owlets.

See? All my fretting paid off. Last year's owlets branched on March 27 and March 29. That might be early for this year, considering how cold the winter was. But you can bet I'll be bringing the good camera with me on the morning walks from now on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hoping for owlets, but worried

This morning's owl.

It's been more than a week since I have seen any activity at the owl nest. It was Saturday night, March 1, when an owl flew out of the nest around 6 in the evening just as Doug and I were approaching on the evening dog walk. The next night, I heard hooting coming from a stand of pines nearby, but I couldn't find either owl. And that's been how it's gone it ever since--occasional hooting, occasional sightings of owls in trees, but nothing at all at the nest.

Up until a week ago, I could persuade myself that I could see movement inside the cavity where the nest supposedly is. A couple of times I saw a small feather, waving from a shard of wood at the entrance, pulled from an owl, most likely, as it was coming or going.

But now I am beginning to worry. Did the pair produce a clutch of eggs? Did the eggs hatch? Are the owlets viable, and growing? Will they be branching soon? Or is the nest abandoned and empty, the owlets dead, the eggs stolen by raccoons?

There is probably no good reason for my fretting, other than the fact that I am a natural-born fretter. But my nervousness has been exacerbated by a series of e-mails from a photographer who had staked out the nest last year and got glorious, beautiful shots of the branched owlets and the parents.  (He also has wonderful photos from elsewhere around the Cities--great shots of four pileated babies, poking their heads out of the nests, screaming for food; other owls; other birds.)

He emailed me this week and said he had not seen any activity at the nest for more than a week, and he was concerned. Previously, he said, he had been able to see ear tufts when he aimed his spotting scope at the nest cavity, but lately he's seen nothing.

The nest in the cavity of the silver maple, with one of last year's owlets
poking his head out the day before he branched. The second owlet
had already branched and was hiding behind the jagged back of the nest.

The nest is in the cavity of a broken-off branch of a silver maple tree, probably 20 feet up from the ground. It angles sharply down, and unless something has its head poking out of the hole it's not possible to see what, if anything, is inside. Every day, I stare up from the walking path, but all I see is darkness and, as I mentioned, the occasional waving feather.

The photographer's e-mails so worried me that I consulted with neighbors who are also besotted with the owls. One woman said she saw an owl fly to the nest tree on Wednesday but not actually go inside the nest. She, too, has heard the hooting at night. But nobody has seen any activity coming or going from the actual nest.

So now I am on fretful, worried owl watch. Last night, the dogs and I heard hooting from the pines by the frog pond, just a few yards west of the nesting tree. We wandered over there and found dozens of owl pellets in the snow, but couldn't spot the owl. As we were walking away, we heard response hooting coming from a stand of pines just east of the nest; if you were to draw a straight line between the two stands of pines, the nesting tree would be in the middle. Surely the owls wouldn't be staying so close if there weren't owlets?

But who knows? Great-horned owls are territorial, and this is their territory.

This morning we walked past the nest again, and I stood on the path and stared up at the dark cavity. Nothing. No motion, no feathers, no mom flying in with a rabbit or a rat.  Is anybody in there? I asked aloud. Last year's owlets branched at the very end of March, so I have two or three or even four weeks to wait to get my answer.

As we continued along the path toward home, I looked up and saw an adult owl in one of the pines right in front of me.  Is there anyone in the nest? I asked.

That owl knows. He knows for sure. But he's not saying.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

After the storm


And now everything is glittering white and frozen hard again. We had two lovely melty days--on Tuesday the temperature was near 50 degrees, and the sun was shining, and water was running down the street, snowbanks were collapsing, the puddle at the corner where I cross to go to work was so wide and so deep that I had to trot down to the other end of the block and cross there. A person could drown in a puddle that size, or just float away.

Two days, Tuesday and Wednesday. That's all we got. It is not unusual for early spring to do this to us, tease us, laugh at us, come and go, but this year it more than teased us. It flirted with us and then it slapped us across the face, pushed us down the stairs.  How dare we! On Thursday morning, the day after the melt, a few hours before the big storm, I took the dogs to the park. It was still mild, about 30 degrees, and while the path was icy underfoot, we walked well and long, figuring this would be the last good walk for a while. A storm was moving in that afternoon, and it was predicted to be a big one.

Down by the lake, as we crossed the parking lot to head up to the pedestrian bridge that spans busy Lexington Avenue, I saw movement on the hill above the bridge: a red fox. This was the first time I'd seen a fox since the first big snowfall in mid-November; while I've seen their tracks all over the place, the foxes themselves have been more coy.

This one was not coy. He saw us, and he stopped and watched.  Of course I wanted a picture, I always want a picture, so I hustled Riley and Rosie across the parking lot and over to the path that leads up the hill.


At some point the dogs caught sight of the fox, and they acted like the goofballs they are in a crisis: Riley started lunging and barking, straining at the leash, and Rosie launched herself right at Riley, since the fox was too far away for her to attack, and I had to try to pull them apart and calm them down all while dragging them straight toward the fox.

The fox trotted back and forth on its hill, waiting for us. He seemed bemused by our Keystone Kops approach. He paused between two trees at the top of the snowy hill. He backed up so that I could see only his ears and eyes poking up over the curve of the snow. He came forward again and posed. I fumbled with the camera, the dogs leaped and thrashed, I took an extremely crooked picture with some filter or another inadvertently activated, and then he trotted off. Perhaps he sighed. Perhaps he rolled his eyes.

We are so inept, the dogs and I, at the sight of unexpected wildlife. We have grown used to having this park mostly to ourselves this frigid winter, sharing it with the occasional jogger, now and then another intrepid dog-walker, an owl safely high enough in a tree that the dogs don't care. It has been too cold and snowy for ducks or geese; the lake is given over to ice fishermen sitting on stools, jigging their lines. We haven't even seen a coyote trotting out to the fishing hole to look for guts.

So the sight of this fox sent us all into our separate frenzies--Riley with the fox, Rosie with Riley, me with the camera, fumbling and bumbling with excitement.

The sky began to clear as we headed for home. Later in the day the clouds would move back in, and it would begin to rain, putting down a thick layer of ice before it turned to all snow for the next seventeen hours. When the storm passed on Friday midmorning, we would have a foot of new snow, trees bent from the weight of the ice, the yard so deep that if she thought of it Rosie could just step over the top of the fence and be gone, back to the park, back to the fox, searching for its den.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A time of transition

Tuesday morning after the snowstorm.

This has been a long, deep, old-fashioned winter. Lots of snow. Bitter cold. I have to confess that I haven't much minded it; the previous few winters all began with rain, which then froze, making walking conditions icy and impossible for months on end. The twice-daily dog walk was frustrating and dangerous.  I wore little grippies on my boots and minced along in slow motion and still fell. The dogs and I grew fat from lack of exercise.

This year it's been cold, but even when it's six below zero, or nine below zero, I bundle up and walk fast and far under bright sunny skies, under clear starry skies. The sidewalks are snowy, but not slick. As long as I can move, I don't mind the cold.

On Monday we had another snowstorm; there have been lots of Monday morning right at commute time blizzards this year, and Monday saw another six inches of snow right at rush hour. But yesterday--oh gorgeous, glorious yesterday! I had to go out at noon to give a little talk to the Minnesota Memoirists, and when the talk was over I headed back to work under bright blue skies, and nearly fifty degrees. Oh, my, it was gorgeous. The puddle at the corner by my parking lot was so wide and deep--and penned in by high walls of snow--that I couldn't cross there; I had to go down the street to the other corner.

Everything was dripping and splashing, the snow was piled high and blindingly white, the sun was powerful, the sky a vivid deep blue. I took off my gloves, opened my coat, laughed out loud.

Yesterday's sunrise: clear skies, unbroken snow, and not a soul around.

It froze overnight, though, and I fear that this morning's walk will be a mincing, slow, short one, me being careful not to fall, jerking the dogs' leashes in frustration when they try to bolt after a squirrel, afraid they'll pull me over.

And tomorrow: another blizzard. Here we go, lurching like a drunk toward spring.

This will be the next few weeks, I fear, if not the next two months. Warm and melty, cold and freezy, icy, more snow. I don't mind having a real honest to gosh winter as long as it means a real honest to gosh spring follows. I'm starting to look forward to daffodils and tulips, mud and the smell of new-mown grass. Here's hoping I can manage to stay upright until then.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Looking toward June


Saturday morning, 7 a.m., zero degrees outside, Rosie chewing on an elk antler, Riley chewing on a paw, Doug reading the newspaper, and me trying hard to generate some anxiety about June. On the table by my side are the twelve books that I must read between now and then--there are also several long essays and two screenplays that I need to find on the Web--but since I have a full six weeks more for reading than I did before the January residency, I am not feeling any particular sense of urgency.

Today I should get back my instructor's comments on my Feb. 1 manuscript, which I'll be interested to see, but my brain is deeply in the March 1 manuscript at this point, and I've already started tinkering with the piece I hope to submit in April.

I'm taking Riley to the vet today for his annual checkup; we'll walk over to the clinic, about a mile away, at 10 a.m. when it's supposed to be about ten degrees. He's 12 1/2 now but happy and healthy--well, as happy as neurotic Riley can be, denning up a room away in the evenings, keeping us under surveillance, and going up to bed at 8:15 p.m. every night, like clockwork. He hops onto the bed and curls up in the southwest corner of the mattress and is snoring quietly when I go up some time later. (Rosie stays downstairs with me, sprawled on the couch, her head on my knee, her big brown eyes opening every time I shift my position, just in case it means I'm suddenly going to play.)

As you can see, I'm having trouble keeping on task. A dozen books to read between now and June but it's hard to take this very seriously; we have four feet of snow on the ground and June feels like a lifetime away. No, I'm not losing my enthusiasm for the MFA. I'm just more interested in the writing part right now. And I'm a lifelong journalist, motivated by deadlines. A June deadline to a newspaper person is no deadline at all.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

And now, back to the MFA


We got our reading list this morning for the June residency. Things should be much less hectic this time around---we have three and a half months to do the readings, as opposed to a mere two months for the first residency.

This time I count twelve books plus a screenplay and some assorted essays, but I might be miscounting; I only got the list about fifteen minutes ago.

I am facing some of the frustrations I faced last time: I know I own some of these books, but I'll be damned if I can put my hands on them.  Thomas Lynch's "The Undertaking"? I've read that, and at one time I owned two copies, but I can find neither one.  "The Great Gatsby"? I re-read that a few years back and I can picture the blue cover, the sad eyes, the festive yellow streak at the bottom. But, again, where is it? This house has thousands of books, and while they are more or less in order, it seems that the ones I need to find are always less in order than more.

I did find "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (and man do these Queens professors love Joan Didion; this will be the third collection assigned), so that's something.  I'll show you all of the titles when I get them.

This morning I turned in my critiques to the other students in my workshop; we all had to turn in manuscripts last Saturday and have until the end of today to respond. Next weekend the instructor responds, and then it all repeats itself in March. And April. And May. And June--but in June we will be back in Charlotte.

I am enjoying this, the rhythm of it, writing every morning over breakfast, either my own work or critiques of others. For February's deadline, I turned in one new piece and a couple of older ones that I reworked. For March, I have one new piece and one old one that I'm rewriting. It's fun; it makes me work. Write an hour every day, Stitt told us, and while I am writing every day it is not always an hour. And, frankly, these nine-below-zero mornings have helped, cutting short the dogwalk and giving me more time before I leave for work. When the weather warms and the walks grow long again, I will have to figure out a new rhythm.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The owls' last hurrah

At sundown, all was quiet in the park
So last week's performance of owl love might have been the pair's last hurrah. Now it is February, and I'm thinking the courtship and fooling around is over and it's time to brood. Not brood as in the dark-eyed scorned lover, but brood as in sitting on eggs.  It's cold here, still getting down below zero at night, and wherever the female owl is I figure she isn't straying far from the nest because she won't want those eggs to freeze.

On the weekend, I walked over to the park alone at dusk and wandered back and forth between the pines where the owls have been hanging out and the silver maple where last year's nest was. The sky darkened from pale pink and blue to navy blue, the shadows faded as the light drained away, and everything was quiet but for the sound of my boots squeaking on the hard-packed snow. No owls. Nothing at all, just me, growing colder and colder in the six degrees below zero evening.

I left the tree and headed up the path toward the Japanese Garden, where I had seen the owl hooting behind the tall fence a week before, but again, all was quiet. And then I remembered something one of the gardeners had told me last summer. She said she had seen the whole owl family one night "hunting off the top of the dome." I have been unable to look at the illuminated glass dome of the Como Conservatory since then without picturing four owls perched on the very top but of course that is not something I have ever seen.  So I walked a few feet down the path toward the Conservatory, and right away I saw the owl.

Hunting off the Conservatory dome.

He wasn't on top of the dome, of course--how would he see anything from up there?--but he was perched on the ridge that runs around the bottom of the glass dome. He turned his head, he craned his neck, he was clearly hunting. I didn't want to get too close because my mantra always is, don't disturb the owls. I took a picture, but I was far away and so it's blurry, and he actually looks more like a cat than an owl. But then I saw him fly...


...to the adjoining greenhouse roof. Cats don't fly. Not in my life, anyway.

And so I left him there. If the female is brooded up somewhere, this is probably the male, hunting for something for himself to eat, and something for her. If all goes well, the female will produce somewhere between two and four eggs, spaced several days apart, and the eggs will hatch in early March. A few weeks later, the owlets will emerge from the nest to hang out on a branch. And the whole wonderful cycle begins again.